I drove east from LA into the desert yesterday, and got homesick. I made my way onto the 60 towards Riverside, thinking about how this particular route was like a tour through the fall of the American Empire. I was bombed by billboards for detox and botox, fast food and weight loss, banks and bankruptcy, deteriorating shopping malls and discount outlets baking in the heat. A witness to endless blankets of housing cut with corporate strips and parking lots, cheap and ugly boxes, fade-out to irrelevance before they’re even thrown up. Everyone speeding past me to get somewhere.
Southern California could easily pass as some alien other-world, some kind of space invasion from the future, but this is our American reality.
So my homesickness was partly a disorientation, a geographical shift that finds me driving on freeways after several months walking around the ancient cities. But my sadness today, the dread — this is about bloated and unaware America choking on its own fat. War-loving and arrogant. I’ve been hit with a mega-culture shock, returning to this place I call home. All it took was a brief step outside and my America looks like a foreign, uncanny version of itself, threatening me with vague ideas of opportunity and comfort. Contagious and spreading, of course.
And this forces me to think about my own relationship to design and branding. The sickness of corporate branding guidelines used to ruin landscapes, to sell junk and failure.
Not all branding is the same. But at the risk of oversimplifying, I’d like to question the value of much of the work we produce today. Designers, marketers, “branding experts” blindly grabbing clients and opportunities in the name of clarity or bottom line or good design. In the end we produce a lot of surface and clutterstuff to promote and sell our clients, most of it irrelevant, unsustainable or both. Not all of it, mind you. But I stand there looking at the retail junkyards of Penn Station or JFK or I-10 and shudder to think about how I (could) have contributed to these failed environments.
And when we’re not promoting stuff, we’re busy promoting ourselves.
I need a new technique. Inspiration this week came in the form of a tweet: He got hooked on what he was doing; curiosity came to supersede ambition as his principal motivation. This resonates for me. Taken out of context, this is one way for me to articulate what I’ve been doing this year, challenging myself to get to work outside the office. Curiosity aimed at personal growth, an interior view. My questions today: how can I use this motivation to create awesome, thick value in the world? How do I produce meaningful work now?